Richard’s silver BMW slides silently to the flat ignoring the pedestrian measures in place, and clearly on the watch, my mother appears at the gateway. As physically unlike me as possible, her thick dark brown hair is pulled into a severe bun on the back of her head, her slightly olive skin evoking her Hungarian heritage, several times removed, and in a uniform of polo necks and black trousers, she stands with her arms crossed over her chest like a painfully thin former prima donna. Brittle, rigid and self-contained, she waits for Richard to open the passenger door before approaching.
“Martha,” she says.
I take Richard’s proffered hand and hoist myself up causing a painful tug deep inside me. Had we been men, a simple handshake would have sufficed, but as women, and mother and daughter at that, something more is, and always will be, expected. I shuffle awkwardly forward, and we press our cheeks against each other for a dutiful second. Richard takes over as host.
“Sarah,” he says, while handing the holdall to Mrs Gilbert, who has also emerged from the building; seen but not heard; a good domestic at heart. “Thank you so much for coming. I know Martha really appreciates it, don’t you, darling?”
I smile rather than force a response, and it’s Mrs Gilbert who comes forward and takes my arm, as well as heaving the holdall on to her shoulders.
“I am very sorry, Mrs Chamberlain. Let’s get you inside.”
I gratefully lean on her, waddling slightly, leaving my mother and Richard to continue exchanging niceties.
Inside the flat Mrs Gilbert busies herself putting my bag into our bedroom, putting the kettle on, and generally taking over the more menial hostess duties; we, the unholy trinity, perch in the lounge, and I desperately hope that the pad which I’d spitefully wished to fail on Richard’s cream leather car seats, now lends itself ably to the task while I’m sitting on our loaned cream suede sofas.
We wait patiently, Richard’s eyes wandering over the paintings on the walls, my mother’s hands placed in her lap, her eyes also downcast. No one attempts conversation. It’s not that I don’t like my mother; it’s not that we’ve fallen out; it’s just that we’re not close, we never have been; if I have a bad day, I don’t pick up the phone to call her, nor if I receive good news. We’re not friends, simply two people linked by blood. We have nothing in common.
“Here we go,” says Mrs Gilbert, entering from the kitchen with a tray. Elegantly accessorised with a white rose in a slender silver vase, the ‘best’ china has been laid out on the tray, complete with silver teaspoons, linen napkins, and, uncharacteristically kind, a plate of chocolate hobnobs; my favourites. I send an honest smile in her direction; my first of the day. Before I get the chance, my mother swings into action and takes control of the milk jug and teapot.
“How do you take yours, Martha?” Both she and Richard look at me expectantly, and I wait a moment to give the latter a chance to answer; both stay silent. “Martha?”
Such an innocuous question, but the ridiculousness of the situation strikes me: my mother and my husband, arguably two of closest people in my life, and yet neither know how I like my tea. I start to laugh, and then I discover I can’t stop. They stare at me in horror.
“I’ll just take Mrs Chamberlain to have a little lie down. I’m sure she’s very tired,” says Mrs Gilbert as they remain inactive. She tucks a hand under my arm and eases me to my feet taking far more of my weight than I would have thought possible.
“Thank you,” I say, recovering myself. “I think Mrs Gilbert is right. I am feeling a little tired. I’ll have a catnap for an hour or two.”
“Don’t forget your medication, darling,” calls Richard.
She takes me only as far as our bedroom door and then tactfully leaves me with a gentle pat on my hand. “Thank you,” I say again, much more quietly.
Shutting the door to our bedroom firmly behind me, I lean against it and slowly slide to my feet; an act that is suddenly so reminiscent of my fall in the Minster that I pull myself up again as fast as I can and walk to the bed. There is no sign that anything is a-miss; no clue that Richard had to hastily grab a bag of clothes to bring to me in the hospital: both twin beds are beautifully made with sheets twitched perfectly flat, and all the surfaces are clear. It disturbs me that so much has changed, but so little.
I realise miserably that without help, I can’t get out of the wretched red dress, but the thought of calling anyone in here defeats me, instead I throw back the covers, pull the blinds and draw the curtains, before getting into bed, and dragging the duvet over my head. It is blissfully dark, and despite the muffled voices drifting through the walls, it is almost peaceful. I let out a huge breath that I didn’t even know I was holding. I close my eyes and lie there, still.
I want to cry; I want to mourn my little girl, but the tears don’t come and won’t come; haven’t come since I was a child and taking anti-anxiety pills; nor, more recently, in my teens, when I upgraded to antidepressants. I can’t even cry for my unborn baby, now lost and lying God knows where.
I scrunch my face up into an approximation of grief, but nothing. I feel empty, physically and emotionally; my face, a blank staring slate; my chest feels heavy; an elephant sitting on my breastplate, squashing the breath from my lungs; my limbs weighted with lead; my head, a deadweight. What now?
A flicker of sound in my ears; and my name. I know Richard and my mother will be discussing me. But I don’t recognise this voice, not at first, but then a light flares in my head. It is a female voice; a whispered voice: the voice from the Minster. A terrible thought occurs to me – is this my child reaching out to me? Chastising me? I failed her. I couldn’t protect her.
My eyes prick, and my nose feels sour, crinkling from a bitter smell. I know I would feel better if only tears would form and fall, but they will not. My brow lowering, eyes creasing and my bottom lip pushed out, helplessly, as my teeth grit together and my throat tightens. This is crying, but no tears come. I feel trapped in a cage of unemotion; encased in bands of steel.
I’m screaming but no sound is released, as instead, I bring my knees up to my chest, wrap my arms around them and bury my head. The voice doesn’t stop, doesn’t diminish, and when I can take it no longer, I reach into my bedside drawer and shake out two pills from a bottle. I don’t care if they react poorly with the drugs the hospital has already pumped me full of. If I can’t grieve, I must sleep.
But the dreams come again. More persistent as faces melt in front of my eyes, skin blisters and pops, and this time, I can feel my own skin warming, heating up by the unforgiving blaze. The pain is unbearable and the blood begins to drip down my arms. Men, women, children, no one is spared, and still they call to me.
I struggle out of sleep, desperate to escape. The room is pitch black and I have no idea of how long I’ve lain here. The alarm clock reads ‘3.23’ but I don’t know if that’s morning or afternoon. I’m about to turn the bedside light on when the door cracks open.
“Are you awake, Martha?”
It opens further and my mother puts her head around it. I am tempted to fain sleep but can’t face the thought of those dreams.
“Yes. What time is it?”
“Almost half past three.”
“In the morning?”
“In the afternoon.”
“How long have I been asleep?”
“Just a few hours.” She flicks the light on. “Ah…” She looks unsure of herself. “Let me call Mrs Gilbert.”
I look down at the duvet, which, in my fear-drenched dreams, I’ve half pushed on to the floor, and see that the expensive dress has ridden up to my waist and that a small circle on the under sheet, about the size of a melon, is soaked in blood; my thighs are sticky with it which is already beginning to dry in the air. Panic, revulsion and shame grip me and I pull my legs free of the mess. Mrs Gilbert, summoned by my mother, takes one look at the situation, and bustles her out of the room.
When the ruined hundred pound sheets and designer dress have been bundled up and shoved into a bin bag, and wrapped only in a silk dressing gown, the last thing I want to do is lie in a hot bath; too reminiscent of the gin-soaked forced miscarriages of the past, but Mrs Gilbert insists.
“It’s already running for you.”
“Thank you,” I say. She follows me to the bathroom door.
“I know you’re not feeling quite yourself at the moment.”
“I’m sure I can manage,” I say.
“But-” Her words peter out with things left unsaid. What has my mother said to her? – That I am not to be trusted alone.
“Thank you,’ I say, and I close the door as gently as I can, in her face.
I turn the water off at the taps and dip a finger in to test the temperature. It is boiling hot and sweat begins to spring up as my memories of my dream return. I push the cold tap to its fullest and once a barely lukewarm effect is achieved, only then do I allow the dressing gown to fall.
A full-length mirror stands by the door and I can’t help but examine my body. My breasts are still fuller than before, but my tummy, which had grown almost imperceptibly with each day, has returned to its normal, almost concave, shape. There is little left to show. I had wanted to bathe alone, and I had got my wish.
“Are you ok in there, Martha?” calls my mum, from the other side of the door, clearly having replaced Mrs Gilbert as watchman.
Shaken out of my reflection, I step into the bath and feel the water wash over my limbs, before replying, “Yes.”
The water smells delicious, one of my favourite perfumes from Molton Brown, but I’m not soothed, rather repulsed as the water around me turns a rusty brown as the congealed blood loosens its grip on my skin. I can’t shake the notion that this is still my peanut – part of her – that I’m washing away.
I refuse to stay in the water for long, and barely two minutes after I get in, I stand up and wrap a thick white towel around me. This time it’s my face I see in the mirror, and its ghostly pallor is heightened by two bright pink dots on my cheeks. I am exhausted, shattered, and still I feel numb.
I turn my inside wrists upwards; the left is lined with a spider’s web of silvered scars. I push my thumb into my skin but the scars stay the same. I still remember my routine so clearly; I even had a favourite knife I would use, long since confiscated.
It’s been years since I sliced into the soft flesh and watched the beads of crimson blood spring to the surface, but not a day goes by that I don’t think of it. Old habits die hard. Perhaps it was merely for attention as the therapists said but I thought of it as a way to feel something, anything. When drugs had dulled my emotions, at least I could still feel physically; at least there was some way that I still knew I was alive.
I open the bathroom cabinet. Richard’s old-fashioned cutthroat razor is clasped neatly into its mother of pearl handle. I pull the blade free. It is untarnished, curved slightly, and regularly sharpened. I stare at it. Slowly, deliberately, I put the blade on to the surface of my left wrist and press gently.
Immediately I feel the pressure and it is a relief. I press harder and when I take the razor away, am rewarded with a bright red mark springing up, but the skin is not yet broken; it is more resilient than you think; it requires a conscious effort to break it open. But for the present, the mark is enough. It is enough to feel; to know that I can still hurt. I carefully fold the blade back into the handle and shut the door of the cabinet.
There are fresh clean-smelling sheets on the bed; the work of Mrs Gilbert rather than my mother, I suspect. The medicine prescribed for me by the hospital doctor is laid out on the bedside table with a tall glass of water.
“I’m not sure I want to take them,” I say.
“Of course you must, Martha.”
“But they’re giving me nightmares.”
“They’re just dreams. Now swallow these,” she hands me two small round white pills.
“But they seem much more vivid than dreams.”
“Richard has said you can also have one of these if you’re having trouble sleeping,” and she presents me with another pill; this one bright pink, which I recognise as the double of the strong sleeping pills I keep in my drawer. I look at the three tablets in my palm, lift it to my mouth, tip back my head and swallow them with a mouthful of water.
“There’s fire everywhere.”
“In my dreams. Flames everywhere, and dripping faces. There’s a man, and a boy; just a child really. And a young woman who knows my name; she called to me. And then it gets hot, so hot, and my skin melts, and there’s blood; so much blood.”
“Hush now. Let the pills do their work. You need to rest, not worry yourself over some silly dreams.”
I fall asleep with her words echoing in my head.
Every night it’s the same; I wake screaming, and Richard, who has taken a room at a nearby hotel, leaving my mum to sleep in the guest room, prescribes me with some stronger sleeping pills. But it’s not falling asleep that’s the problem.
One day, I go too far in the bathroom and press too hard with the razor. I try to cover the cut with a bracelet but my mother sees it instantly.
“What’s this?” she says.
“Nothing,” I say, with a shrug. “I just caught myself in the shower.”
She purses her lips and says nothing more, but when Richard comes home from work that day he sits me down.
“Cut yourself in the shower?” he says, deliberately tracing the old scars. I snatch my wrist back angrily, feeling like a thwarted teenager and shoot a bitter look at my mother. ‘We’re just worried about you, Martha. Now, I’ve pulled a few strings and called in a favour or two, and there’s a private room just waiting for you at Bootham Park. You can get some proper rest there for a few days, or as long as you want.”
“Bootham Park?” I jump up from the chair causing my stitches to pull uncomfortably. “You mean the mental hospital where you work?”
“You know it’s not called that, Martha. And you’d receive the very best care there.”
“You think I’m crazy.”
“No, darling. I’m not saying that; neither of us are.”
“Then I’m not going,” I say. “You can’t make me.”
Richard sighs. “Martha, darling, this is for your own good. It’s taken a great personal sacrifice for me to reach this point. After all, I have my colleagues and professional reputation to consider, but your mother and I both agree-”
“You can both go to hell. I’m not going to a crazy house. Not ever!”
“Calm down. We don’t actually need your permission,” Richard says, and gets to his feet. In my anger and panic, without realising I have picked up a beautiful glass horse from Murano and am holding it high above my head as if to launch an attack. I lower my arms slowly and carefully place the horse back on the side table.
His words have brought me to the danger of my situation. Despite my protests, they can make me go, but some part of my self-preservation kicks in. I can salvage this. I calmly sit back down, and look at the two of them. I take a deep breath.
“I understand your concern,” I say. “I know you think you’re just doing what’s best for me, but please listen to me when I say that that would not be it.”
“No; please listen to me, Richard. I know I’ve worried you both, and I’m sorry about that. It’s just, this whole situation has been very difficult for me.”
“It’s been difficult for all of us,” he says. “I asked your mother to come for precisely that reason but you’ve barely spoken a word to her.”
“Yes; I can see that it’s been difficult for all of us. What I’m proposing is this,” I turn to my mother. “What I’m proposing is that you stay here and help me, erm, recuperate, and while I won’t agree to go to Bootham Park.” I turn back to Richard. “I will agree to attending a weekly counselling session with whichever of your colleagues you deem best.”
“You’ll get therapy?”
“Yes, Richard. I’ll get therapy.”
“Well,” and he lets out a great sigh. “That changes things, doesn’t it, Sarah?” He addresses my mother. She nods. He stands up again. “Now that that is sorted, what has the ever-reliable Mrs Gilbert left us for tea?”
After a dinner of lasagne and green beans, I excuse myself from the table. Shutting the bedroom door quietly behind me, I go swiftly to my bedside table where I keep not only the prescription strength sleeping pills, but also the two anti-depressants I take on a daily basis. I have just filled out a repeat prescription and there is almost a full month’s worth of pills.
Punching them from their foil-sealed wrappers as quickly as I can, I pop the packaging in my handbag to dispose of later, and gathering up the pile of pills, walk into the en-suite and throw them down the toilet. I flush. When I open the door to leave, Richard is standing there.
“Everything ok, darling?” he says and eyes me suspiciously.
“Of course,” I say. “I’m still feeling a little nauseous, that’s all.”
“You poor thing. Still, I think we should operate an open bathroom door policy from now on, don’t you? Just to be on the safe side, you know.”
“A what?” I stutter.
“Well we don’t want you to do anything silly like this again, do we?” he says, lifting up my wrist.
My mother has come up behind him. “Now Richard,” she says. “I don’t think that’s necessary. We need to show Martha that we trust her.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” he says, with a frown. “What’s for pudding?”
That night my mother moves her things into Richard’s bedroom and mine; placing her nightie on the pillow of his single bed; he returns to his hotel. I make sure she sees me swallowing my medication, which is, in fact, a single painkiller to ease the discomfort of my stitches, and we settle down for the night.
In the darkness, I stare at the ceiling trying to process my thoughts. It’s not just that my husband and mother tried to institutionalise me this evening, it’s that I very nearly let them. I rub my fingers over the thin bandage on my wrist. I was stupid and I vow never to let that happen again.
Flushing away my medication was less about an act of rebellion and more a sudden realisation of the control being exerted on me. I’ve been taking some form of medication, whether anti anxiety pills or anti depressants, for as long as I can remember, and it’s never bothered me before. I suppose I thought that they were a natural part of life, as common as taking antibiotics for an infection; after all, if you had a broken leg, you wouldn’t just leave it, and so, if you had a broken mind, then the same process applied.
Now I’m not so sure. I may be wrong, and perhaps, after all of this, Richard and my mum are right, but I’ve got to see for myself. More than that, I have to grieve for the child I’ve just lost.
I notice a difference immediately. This time, when I wake I have more than a sense of horror lingering from my dreams, this morning, I have some words too; two inexplicable words, hovering around the edges of my mind that I know if I grasp too eagerly will disappear in a breath. Instead, I allow the fragile thoughts to settle and am gifted with ‘deep’ and ‘dean’.
Once captured, I know they have no chance of vanishing again, but to be sure, I write them on a piece of paper. I am loath to discard them as just meaningless scraps from a dream.
I feel more alert too. The bed on the other side of the room has already been made, but the curtains and blinds remain drawn and I have been left to sleep. I’m awake now though and have no wish to stay in bed.
With a sense of purpose that has been missing for days, I let the dull December light filter through the windows and ponder what to do with the day ahead. It’s been in my mind to return to the Minster but I’m not sure I’m ready for that yet. I still have a whole list of places to visit but after the scene from last night, I have a suspicion that if I’m not on some sort of house arrest, at the very least my mother will insist on accompanying me and I like to do my exploring alone.
Reluctantly, I conclude the best thing to do is to make good on my promises and show some sort of good will. When I’m showered and dressed, I press my ear against the bedroom door; I can’t hear any sound in the flat and I allow myself to hope that my mother has gone out on some sort of errand.
I am desperate for a cup of tea and I have a craving for a slice of buttered toast. I’m surprised by this show of appetite. I strain my ears to catch any hint of noise but hear nothing. Cautiously, and as stealthily as a thief or an eavesdropper, I turn the door handle and pull it towards me, inch by inch. Still nothing.
Long seconds tick by and I sum up all my insignificant courage and tiptoe out through the lounge and into the kitchen. Congratulating myself on my good fortune to find myself alone, I am walking back to the lounge with a mug in one hand, plate in the other, when I pause, shocked into stillness at the sight of my mother lying on the sofa, the back of which had hidden her from my first glance of the room.
She’s facing the room, and I catch my breath when I realise she’s asleep. A soft snuffling sound is coming from her nose, and whistling from her mouth with each breath. It’s so rare to see her like this, unguarded, that I can’t help but place the mug on a table and sit down gently in a nearby chair.
Her face, usually so tense and rigid, has relaxed in sleep, except for her brow, which remains high. Botox, I suspect, which is a surprise for me. I hadn’t thought her vain. But as I look closer, I see the lines in her forehead, around her eyes and mouth. She’s not old, not in today’s society anyway; a scant forty-five today, but despite only being twenty-two when I was born, and despite growing up without my father, who left when I was a baby, we’ve never been close.
I think it’s a case of chalk and cheese, well, I’ve always been chalk, and she’s never really been anything. Now I think about it, I recognise her by her lack of personality and interests, rather than any clashes between us. I suppose I’ve always got the impression that she wasn’t very interested in me.
When my father walked out on us, we went to live with my mother’s parents in Milton Keynes and it’s them who I remember fondly. My grandfather, Gramps to me, was a vicar, who read bedtime stories from the Bible; magical sounding tales of far away people living in far off lands; interspersed, of course, with Roald Dahl. Even a vicar knows a good children’s book when he sees it; but not my mother; never her.
She was, and still is, a primary school teacher. She’d leave early and return late, working at a different school to mine. It was Grandma and Gramps, who cooked me tea, made sure I did my homework, worried when I didn’t get any invites from other children to play, came to my parents’ evenings, and sent me to bed.
I never caused a problem through primary school; I’d already been prescribed medication for my ADHD. When I moved up to secondary school, there was a temporary upset when I was caught self-harming, but after I’d been referred to a therapist on a weekly basis and once the antidepressants kicked in, I crawled back into my shell, but it was the concern and worry I saw on my grandparents’ faces that really made me stop; I’d discovered history by then too, and reading. I soon learned it was far easier to retreat to a fictional world or relive the past than deal with the present.
I worked hard at school, studied, and earned a place to read history at Oxford. I came home during the holidays for the first year, but once Grandma and Gramps died, within months of each other, I found reasons not to any more. I got a job in a bookshop there; earned enough to rent a little flat, and when the opportunity came to study abroad in Florence for a year, I grabbed it with both hands. My final year came, and with it, Richard. When we met my mother to tell her of our engagement, at Richard’s insistence, it was the first time I’d seen her in almost a year.
She stirs in her sleep, and anxious to avoid a conversation for as long as possible, I stand up, retrieving the mug but leaving the now empty plate, and as I do, a murmur catches my attention. She is talking in her sleep, and I can’t resist the opportunity to eavesdrop on her inner thoughts. I lean closer and she shifts suddenly, her eyes flashing open sending me reeling back.
I manage to restrain a scream, and swallow before saying, “Erm, morning, mum. Did you not sleep well?”
She moves up into a sitting position. “Well, you still haven’t grown out of your habit of sleep talking, it seems.”
“Oh? Did I make any sense?”
“It’s strange. I’m still having these craz- odd dreams. They always disappear in the mornings, you know, like they do, but this morning, I could remember part of them.”
“Just a few words and they don’t even make any sense: ‘deep’ and ‘dean’.” Some instinct makes me watch her closely for a reaction, but I am disappointed: her features are as carefully controlled as before and once again, botox flits into my mind. “Do they make any sense to you?” I persist.
“No, Martha; they don’t. Now what are we going to do today?”
“Erm,” I cast around for inspiration, pouncing with enthusiasm on a familiar guidebook resting on the side table. “There’s this wonderful old guidebook I found which shows you all the hidden and forgotten passages-”
“I think you should probably rest a while longer, Martha. Keep indoors for a few more days.” I lapse into silence. “I’ve brought some good books with me, and I know how much you like to read.”
Seeing an opportunity, I grab it.
“Yes, I’ve just downloaded a great book on to my tablet. I’ll just go and get it, and then come and join you.” I smile as genuinely as I can. She might have dismissed my questions, and while I have no idea what the two words mean, they sound right. Deep and dean, they fit together; a natural pairing in my mind. I slip the tablet out of its Italian-crafted leather case and instead of loading up the book programme, click on the icon for the Internet instead.
For as long as I’ve had access to the Internet, I’ve been an inveterate Googler. To someone, somewhere, ‘deep’ and ‘dean’ must mean something. To my frustration, the first hit is for a porn site, the second for a hiking trail in the South Downs. Next come recipes for deep-fried dishes, and disturbing fan clips from TV shows. By the fifth page, I’m beginning to lose interest and question myself; ridiculous to pin together abstract words.
I try the search one more time, to see if there’s anything I’ve missed, and immediately spot a helpful tab at the top of the page – ‘Do you mean deepdene?’
I don’t know, do I? Although I’ve paired the two words together, I haven’t tried any alternate spellings. I click on the link, and a whole new set of hits floods the screen. I steadfastly ignore the link to the world’s largest irradiated diamond, and instead click on a wiki link to Deepdene, Yorkshire. A thumbnail description appears, “Deepdene is a village and civil parish in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire, England. The village is very old and was mentioned in the Domesday Book. Despite being only small, it is home to the remains of Deepdene Hall, a late-Regency estate and country house.”
I click on the link for Deepdene Hall, which frustratingly brings up a page saying there is no article with that exact name. I scroll down for a photo, any photo, but there are none to be seen; nothing to throw any more light on this scant information. Not even 50 words but it rings true.
I’ve heard of Deepdene before, I know I have. I strain my memory for any recollection; childhood visits, anything, but get nothing. I click back to original search page and while there are no more pages dedicated to Deepdene, on closer inspection, I can see the name highlighted in several newspaper articles from The York Press, dated 14th November 1994.
Eagerly I click again but frustratingly I can’t gain access to their archives; instead the date winks tantalisingly at me. Wherever this Deepdene is, it’s too small to warrant its own newspaper or even a parish newsletter, and any records it might have had are yet to be digitalised.
I want to throw the tablet across the room. I feel like I’ve caught something here; something important; something that might slip away between my fingers if I don’t anchor it down firmly.
“Not enjoying your book?”
I’m startled out of my investigation. “Wha- Oh, no. I mean, yes, I am; it’s just getting to a really tense part.”
“What is it? I shall have to see if the library at home has it.”
“It’s, erm, it’s just a biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine,” I improvise. “It’s very dry really. I’m not sure you’d enjoy it.” Apparently I’ve managed to persuade her and she returns to her own book, a paperback which she has folded the front cover around the back. I wince to see it.
Once I see her settled, I open a word app on the tablet and discreetly type, ‘Deepdene. What is it? Where is it? How do I know it?’ I follow that in block bold capitals, underlined, ‘FIND OUT MORE’.